Pokémon Trading Card Game: Memories of a Collector

John offers his memories of being a part of the Pokemon trading card game.

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Despite writ­ing about Magic the Gathering on a week­ly ba­sis I wasn’t ac­tu­al­ly a fan of it when I was younger. Like many, I spent much of my child­hood col­lect­ing Pokémon cards, and off and on I’ve added to this col­lec­tion through­out the years. It means my col­lec­tion is both ex­ten­sive and eclec­tic in its mix­ture of cards.

Most peo­ple re­mem­ber the clas­sic in­car­na­tion of the Pokémon TCG; the era in which it was print­ed by Wizards of the Coast out­side of Japan*. Here in the UK, they were sold pret­ty much every­where. To my US au­di­ence be­ing able to get trad­ing cards in stores like Walmart or Target is noth­ing un­usu­al, but here in the UK that was kind of a nov­el. Pokémon cards where every­where dur­ing the pe­ri­od they were a full blow craze; their ubiq­ui­ty added to their pop­u­lar­i­ty. I know I wouldn’t have bought as much as I did if you couldn’t get them from lit­er­al­ly every cor­ner shop for a pe­ri­od of time.

pokemon sideAs quick­ly as they ex­plod­ed, they seemed to dis­ap­pear from the mass-market. Whenever I look over an old col­lec­tion there is a pe­ri­od of pe­ter­ing out some­where around where the Team Rocket ex­pan­sion came out and cer­tain­ly be­fore the Gym Heroes and Gym Challenge era — a pe­ri­od I en­joyed im­mense­ly as a col­lec­tor and fan of the games. It was nice to have cards at­tached to a rec­og­niz­able gym leader. Even if some of the choic­es seemed like a stretch at the time.

I re­mem­ber show­ing a friend of mine who was in­ter­est­ed in how Pokémon cards had de­vel­oped over the years an e‑reader card with the weird yel­low striped bar for use with an ill-fated Gameboy ad­vance pe­riph­er­al, and he looked like I’d just shown her an alien arte­fact. People get very at­tached to their era of col­lect­ing some­thing, like those in­tol­er­a­ble bores who yam­mer on about the “su­pe­ri­or­i­ty” of the clas­sic board­er of Magic the Gathering cards.

The odd thing is, the way I col­lect Pokémon is the op­po­site way I col­lect of Magic the Gathering. I’ll seek out a Magic card main­ly for its me­chan­ics; I want to build up a col­lec­tion to play with. I’m not as both­ered about com­plet­ing sets. That’s a nice bonus, but it isn’t my fo­cus. There are a lot of cards I sim­ply have no in­ter­est be­cause they are com­plete­ly unplayable.

Conversely I col­lect Pokémon cards pure­ly based on whether a set will look nice in my binder or not, and I will be a com­ple­tion­ist when it comes to a set. This is part of the rea­son I have start­ed col­lect­ing al­most pure­ly Japanese cards as they tend to have more of the art vis­i­ble, they have bet­ter foiling/holographic ef­fects, and are gen­er­al­ly more pleas­ing to the eye. They are also sold in small­er sets with a bet­ter ra­tio of ultra-rare to common/uncommon cards.

Since I’m not as both­ered about val­ue and playa­bil­i­ty, I’m much more like­ly to crack open packs of Pokémon cards. Especially since you can get a Japanese boost­er box for around £20-£30 de­pend­ing on the box. I guess you could say I’m much more “ca­su­al” about Pokémon — more easy-going. Nintendo have al­ways been good about keep­ing these cards in pocket-money price range, and the af­ter­mar­ket most­ly re­flects that bar­ring se­cret rare cards, and full art cards.

For those unini­ti­at­ed, Pokémon has a slight­ly con­fus­ing ar­ray of rar­i­ties and vari­ants of each card; Common, Uncommon, Rare, Holographic, Reverse Holographic, EX, Full Art, Secret Rare, and all kinds of vari­ants spe­cif­ic to their re­spec­tive sets. Like the now lu­di­crous­ly col­lec­table crys­tal type cards and the re­cent in­tro­duc­tion of the “half-art” cards. This some­times feels like a gim­mick, but most­ly I think it keeps col­lect­ing and open­ing packs new and in­ter­est­ing as new ideas are tried out. It also makes most packs feel spe­cial. Well, apart from when you get lots of Trainer cards. Trainers are bor­ing and al­ways have been.

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I’ve not played an ac­tu­al game of Pokémon in more than a decade; I know how to play and I’ve even looked up the var­i­ous rule changes over the years to stay in touch, but it just doesn’t hold any ap­peal to me. Let’s face it, the Pokémon TCG is vast­ly me­chan­i­cal­ly in­fe­ri­or to some­thing like Magic the Gathering from a de­sign per­spec­tive. In many ways that lack of be­ing be­hold­en to com­pet­i­tive play means there is less rigid­i­ty in as­pects of de­sign. Especially in mod­ern sets, there is a freer ap­proach to art di­rec­tion and a more var­ied style. The last few sets of Pokémon have had art rang­ing from ab­stract hand-painted, to 3D mod­elled, to dig­i­tal­ly paint­ed, and even a clay­ma­tion aesthetic.

I’m glad they’ve gone back to the way cards looked in the eras I en­joyed most. The Neo sets even to­day boast some pret­ty im­pres­sive art­work with the same range of styles. It’s of­ten over­looked, but there is a lot of great art out there we will only ever see through the tiny win­dow of these cards; it’s a bit of a shame there is no repos­i­to­ry of the full-size art­work for the very best of these works. You could have a Pokémon art ex­hi­bi­tion based on this back-catalogue span­ning decades. Many of us have shoe­box­es full of these things. When we’re chil­dren we don’t give a sec­ond thought to the work that went into cre­at­ing these strange pa­per objects.

I sup­pose a lot of peo­ple would be ashamed of be­ing an adult col­lec­tor of Pokémon cards; then again I sup­pose some peo­ple still think the same thing of adults still play­ing video games. I know a lot of avid adult col­lec­tors, but I still wouldn’t in­tro­duce my­self as a “Collector of Japanese Pokémon cards” un­less I was in a par­tic­u­lar crowd.

Whoever is buy­ing them, I’m kind of glad the Pokémon Trading Card Game is still a thing. And a thing that has large­ly kept in touch with its roots as a be­ing aimed (and priced) to­wards younger play­ers. One of these days I should ac­tu­al­ly re­deem some of those code-cards you get in the English lan­guage packs and build a shame­less­ly op­ti­mal net-deck and crush the dreams of some children.

*As a side note the fact that Wizards of the Coast used to man­u­fac­ture Pokémon cards means that new­er packs of Magic the Gathering have the same new-card smell as old packs of Pokémon cards, whilst new­er packs of Pokémon don’t. This seems like an un­usu­al ob­ser­va­tion but your sense of smell is very close­ly linked to mem­o­ry, so if you loved col­lect­ing Pokémon cards back in the day then this smell will prob­a­bly trans­port you back to those times. One day I will fig­ure out how to bot­tle new card smell be­cause it is one of the most evoca­tive smells in the world to long-time collectors. 


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John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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